Time for business to take a lead - RSA

Time for business to take a lead


  • Climate change

My breakfast yesterday was at an event to mark the latest edition of the excellent Times science supplement Eureka. The event featured a fascinating but largely depressing panel discussion about the fallout of the Copenhagen Summit. It got me thinking about climate change through the prism of my old friend cultural theory. 

As regular readers will know, the theory suggest there are four fundamental ways of thinking about social change; the individualistic, the egalitarian, the hierarchical and the fatalistic.     

Fatalism is the default option for most people. Climate change is a huge, complex process that no individual or community can affect alone. Tackling climate change is in large part about shifting this sense of fatalism. 

Copenhagen was all about the hierarchical dimension of change: top down, strategy led, enforced through rules. But it largely failed. This reflected three problems; first, the difficulty of leaders committing to definite sacrifices in the short term for possible gains in the long term; second, the failings of international governance and, in particular, the idea that 192 countries could all reach a far reaching agreement; third, the difficulty of reconciling national political pressures to the demands of global decision making. Steve Howard from the Climate Group made the important point that even if the summit had agreed legally binding targets, it is very unlikely that President Obama could have got them through Congress (remember what happened when Al Gore signed up to Kyoto). 

This is why the commitment of each country to lay out its national commitments by the end of January 2010 may be a good thing. It may be easier to stitch together an international plan from national agreements than to make a global deal and then try to impose it on suspicious national populations and parliaments.     

On the egalitarian front - that is change driven bottom up by shared norms and values – the debate on climate change is in danger of shifting away from those who want action. I wrote recently that more and more people I meet from the political right talk about climate change in the same way they refer to the European Union, as a kind of conspiracy dreamt up by meddling lefties looking for a way to justify state interference in our lives. This mixture of right wing belief and populist anti establishment feeling can be very powerful. Over the top language from environmentalists calling for an abandonment of Western lifestyles doesn’t help. Climate change scepticism has been growing steadily in the USA, it has become the rallying call of the right of centre Australian opposition and it will no doubt be used by leaders and oppositions in other political systems. 

Individualists argue that the best way to tackle climate change it to look to markets, innovation and technology to find solutions. The story here is mixed. On the one hand we hear serious industrialists arguing that all cars could be electric within a few years; on the other hand, it is easy to be seduced into complacency by wacky schemes like piping sulphur into the atmosphere which are not only unproven but could prove on closer examination to be impossible or even counter productive. 

So, overall, things look pretty grim. Going back to the European Union analogy, I think business has a major role. Back in the mid-1990s business leaders argued strongly for the UK to join the euro but as the popular backlash grew (egged on by the media and note how the Express has now become outspokenly sceptical) they were less and less willing to put their head above the parapet. 

In terms of encouraging political leaders to get their act together, in relation to tackling right of centre suspicion and in relation to fostering technological innovation the global corporate sector is vital. 

But will it step up to the plate? When I asked this question on Monday, James Cameron (FRSA), Vice Chair of Climate Change Capital was very upbeat about business commitment while other speakers talked about the growing market for low carbon products and services. But Times Editor James Harding introduced a note of caution. If you ask the CEOs of the FTSE 100 if they care about climate change they will all say the right thing, he suggested, but if you ask finance directors in the same firms you might get a very different response. 

In the wake of Copenhagen there is a huge opportunity for international business (including investors) to take a lead in demanding and shaping global action.  And they have a window of opportunity ahead of next year’s Mexico summit. This may be a job for the Climate Group, but how about a New Year declaration from ten of the world’s most powerful corporate figures: Mittal, Buffet, Brin, Voser laying out their commitment and what world leaders need to do to create the right framework for future green investment? Sadly, I don’t have their blackberry numbers but if you do feel free to forward this post.

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